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Raghida Dergham

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Will Moscow Change Its Policy After the Damascus Bombing?

Posted: 07/20/2012 2:47 pm

Beirut -- The quick succession of crucial developments on the Syrian scene has brought international players back to the strategy-drawing board, some of them confused, some of them angry, and others eager to reap the rewards or to adapt to the new situation. Russia stands at the forefront of those defeated and affronted, not to mention outright confused. The difficulty of making a choice between, on the one hand confrontation, and on the other a bargain weaker than what it had conceded to before the events of the past two days, has made the Russian side more violent in its stances, as it rises against what it considers to have been a national insult and defeat. Yet the political realism of a major power like Russia may lead it to abandon its losing wager and to stop making concessions, some of the assets of which have perhaps become ineffective.

Anything is possible now, including the invalidation of everything this article addresses, because of the transformation on the field which could take things to "decisive battles", -to quote Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, -to defections within the army that would be unexpectedly decisive, to even more blood-spattered surprises and the use of unconventional weapons, or to Russia's leadership reaching the conclusion that the time has come to "tighten the screws" on the Grand Bargain through political solutions.

Everything changed after a suicide-bomber detonated himself last Wednesday in the National Security building, killing the President's brother-in-law Assef Shawkat, who was Deputy Defense Minister and one of the main pillars of the regime. The bombing also claimed the lives of other senior security leaders, including Defense Minister Dawoud Abdallah Rajiha and the head of the crisis cell, as well as wounding the Interior Minister and other security leaders. Everyone is watching to see the reaction of the Syrian President and other regime leaders, as well as Iran's reaction. All eyes have turned to Syria's neighbors, especially Lebanon, divided in its stance on the Syrian regime and on Iran. The Security Council has receded slightly in the wake of the massive event, postponing what should have been a session to vote on draft resolutions aimed at embarrassing Russia, so that it may stop providing the regime in Damascus with time and pretexts. The phase now is one of anticipation pending decisive decisions and measures- and Moscow lies at the forefront and under the microscope.

The magnitude of what happened in the bombing of the National Security building lies in the fact that it was an "inside job", meaning that a security fault allowed the armed opposition to achieve a breach that brought about a turning point. Such a development indicates that the regime is falling apart from the inside and losing control within its ranks. Defections among the ranks of the army become in such a case a natural consequence that warns of either division within the military institution, or of preparations for a coup from within its ranks. The first question that comes to mind concerns President Bashar Al-Assad and the kinds of decisions he will take regarding these exceptional developments. Indeed, this was a destructive blow to the regime, one that has struck at its core and surely must have devastated its morale.

Of course, there is talk claiming that the strong regime is itself the one that carried out this operation against a group that had been planning a coup. Talk had also been leaked of the Americans' desire for Assef Shawkat to remain as one of the pillars of the regime that would stay in power, after Bashar Al-Assad would have stepped down and left the country. Such leaks have perhaps had an impact on the conviction of some that the story of a coup-preparing group having been eliminated might be true. Yet this is a rumor at this point, most likely unrelated to what really happened.

Perhaps the young President will reach the conclusion that there is no need for him alone to stand tall in the face of a miserable fate, either at the hands of angry rebels who would give him the treatment they gave Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, in an extremely primitive and bloody manner, or before international tribunals that accuse him of committing crimes against humanity. Perhaps he will come to the decision that the pillars of the regime are collapsing and that he still has the opportunity to leave the country with his family secretly and safely, stepping down from power as did before him former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh. Thus Bashar Al-Assad could be part of a political formula agreed upon by the leaders of major powers that would lead to political change through a transitional process, sparing the country a civil or sectarian war. But the margin allowed for his safe exit is beginning to narrow, as is the margin for being given immunity. Thus if Bashar Al-Assad were to take such a decision, he would have very little time or space for compromises. Such a choice has become a momentary one, if he were to take it. But the Syrian President might also decide that this is not the time for political solutions, but rather the time for settling the matter militarily by any means available, whether through air raids or chemical weapons. He might consider that what happened was a mere passing milestone and that the balance of military power is to his advantage, and might decide in light of this that the future is on his side and not against him.

Assad might consider Russia's stances to represent an umbrella protecting him and his regime, and might convince himself of what has been circulating about Russia deciding that Syria would be "its own Israel", in the manner of the organic relationship of alliance between the United States and Israel. This would mean that his remaining in power has become vital to the policies of a major power like Russia, because stepping down would mean thwarting plans such as these - if they really were realistic. Yet it is Russia's duty as a major power not to deceive Bashar Al-Assad, and not to deceive the Syrian people and use it as an instrument of revenge to compensate for a national affront or defeat. The popular bases Sergey Lavrov pointed to are not clear about their support for maintaining a regime that is now at war with half of its population. At the very least, the demonstrations spread in every part of Syria and calling for the regime to be overthrown also represent a popular base. And if Lavrov thinks that what is happening in Syria is a revolution that does not concern the Security Council, let him remember that it does not concern him, his President or Russia either, in that case.

Sergey Lavrov is a skilled diplomat who has perhaps become intoxicated with power and begun to speak a contradictory language that is not of his standing, nor of that of Russia. In fact, it is noteworthy that Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Foreign Minister are behaving on the basis of national pride, and not necessarily on that of profound thinking into the best interest of Russia on the long term, when going too far in the art of concession and revenge. Of course, Russia has some sensible demands, vital interests and justifiable stances in protest. Nevertheless, obstructing action at the Security Council is not a policy, and neither is condescending to a popular political uprising. Wagering on a collapsing regime is not a strategy that befits a major power, especially if it is accompanied by the deaths of 18 thousand people. Russia's leadership has the choice either to insist on confrontation, with what this involves in terms of solidarity with one side of a civil war and of losing its weight of major power in shaping a new regional order, or to rush to reach an agreement with the countries of the region and with active Western countries, so as not to remain outside of the new regional order and lose everything it stood to gain from this Grand Bargain.

Things going out of control in Syria are something that is worrying all of the countries of the region, as well as the members of the Security Council. Fragmentation within the regime has taken place and the opposition has grown more confident and has access to weapons. The Security Council is faced with the responsibility of keeping matters in check so as for an organized political process of transition to take place, and so as for it not to occur to the armed opposition that Syria has become a gift ready to be hijacked by the Muslim Brotherhood, along with the secular opposition that had begun the process of change. After the meeting between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, it was striking to see Erdogan speak of unacceptable massacres with Putin by his side at a press conference in Moscow. They both stressed the importance of what had been agreed upon in Geneva about an organized political process of transition and about not militarizing the conflict or the solution.

Indeed, it is of the utmost importance for there to be consensus over the interpretation of the roadmap endorsed at the Geneva meeting, without the procrastination, delays or condescension that have contributed to resorting to a massive security-military operation that has altered the balance of power. For one thing, such an operation has come as a response to Russia's leadership as well, not just as a message to that of Syria. This event has doubtless also driven Iran's leadership to think about its options, which have become limited after the regime, which had formed an important linking point for it, has begun to fall apart. The collapse of the regime in Damascus will have consequences for Tehran, domestically, regionally and in its negotiations with major powers over the nuclear issue. Developments in Syria will force the Islamic Republic of Iran to decrease the level of the demands and conditions it has placed on the P5+1 countries, starting from the first condition of removing sanctions, and up to that of recognizing a central and pivotal role played by Iran beyond its borders, particularly in Syria. Moreover, there is the fact that European countries have moved forward in implementing the oil embargo on Iran, while the United States and some of its allies have escalated their use of technology to sabotage Iran's nuclear plans.

The recent event in Syria weakens Russia's assets in negotiations over both the issues of Iran and Syria, and what Moscow insisted on yesterday is not necessarily on the table today. Even Moscow's wager on the asset of American public opinion not being prepared for military intervention in Syria has been lost, after part of Syria's public opinion has taken its fate into its own hands and turned the tables on Russia's policy. Perhaps the events record an embarrassing setback that brings shame to Russia's leadership and drives it to go to extremes, in anger at such defeat and insult. And perhaps these events will also drive Russia's leadership to take control of things, so that it may remain one of the sponsors of a political solution and one of the players in shaping the new regional order.

There is much common ground between Russia and China on the one hand, and the Western members of the North Atlantic Alliance (NATO) on the other. The rise of Islamists to power may not be a shared cause for concern, but the spread of forces of Muslim extremism- or what Russia calls Islamic terrorism - in the neighborhood of Russia and China is not something the West is demanding, despite what is going through the minds of the Russians in terms of remembering what Washington did in Afghanistan, when it forged Muslim fundamentalism there in order to bring the fall of Communism, and of the Soviet Union in particular.

It is the phase of tug-of-war and of holding one's breath, not just in Syria and in the region, but also in international relations and in the balance of international interests.

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